“Stand by your man.”
It was the call issued in 1968 by country music’s “First Lady,” Tammy Wynette. Famously, as she waved away allegations of sexual impropriety against her husband in 1992, Hillary Clinton claimed to spurn the instructions. “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” Clinton said in a “60 Minutes” interview. “I’m sitting here because I love him, and I respect him, and I honor what he’s been through and what we’ve been through together.”
The remark turned the hit single into a fault line in the culture wars, now flaring over accusations of sexual misconduct against Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh. Fighting to save his Supreme Court nomination, Kavanaugh was joined by his wife Monday for a Fox News interview. Ashley Estes Kavanaugh is a town manager in the D.C. suburbs and a former aide in President George W. Bush’s White House, where she and Kavanaugh met.
The interview was powerful proof that, even in the #MeToo moment, Wynette’s call to “show the world you love him” still carries weight, as it did for Clinton, even though she disparaged the song. The comparison is especially fitting given Kavanaugh’s role — as associate counsel in the office of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr — in proposing sexually explicit questions for President Bill Clinton to answer about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Asked by Fox’s Martha MacCallum whether she doubted her husband, the mother of two daughters replied: “No. I mean, I know Brett — I’ve known him for 17 years.”
“And,” she continued, as her husband glanced sideways to look plaintively at her, “this is not at all characteristic. It’s really hard to believe. He’s decent. He’s kind. He’s good. I know his heart. This is not consistent with Brett.”
The Texas native sat mostly expressionless, her hands resting on her knees, as the nominee disputed the accounts of two women, Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez, who claim that Kavanaugh forced himself on them — Ford when they were in high school in the D.C. suburbs and Ramirez when they were undergraduates at Yale University. “The truth is I’ve never sexually assaulted anyone, in high school or otherwise,” the stern-faced judge said.
He vowed to stay in the ring, saying, “I’m not going to let false accusations drive us out of this process,” as his wife shook her head and seemed to murmur, “No.”
The appearance was noteworthy not simply because it marked the first time that a Supreme Court nominee sat for a television interview in the course of a confirmation battle. And not simply because of the personal details into which the conversation delved.
That Kavanaugh was joined by his wife was also a striking test of evolving attitudes about the role of women and their obligations to men accused of bad acts.
For all the cases in which women have joined efforts to scrub their husbands clean of taint — the travails of Huma Abedin, the Hillary Clinton aide and confidante, were immortalized in the can’t-believe-it’s-not-fiction documentary “Weiner” — men have endured scandal alone in other instances. They include Mark Sanford, the former Republican governor and congressman from South Carolina, and John Edwards, the former Democratic senator from North Carolina and vice-presidential running mate to John F. Kerry in the 2004 election.
“One thing that was remarkable about Brett and Ashley Kavanaugh’s performance tonight was that, certainly 20 years ago, when the allegations against Bill Clinton broke, it was de rigueur for a wife to, as Tammy Wynette says, ‘stand by your man,’ to provide the character bona fides for her husband,” said Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. “But it’s also true that over the last 20 years, we’ve seen some quite remarkable and, in the moment, shocking divergences from that script, which is to say that it is no longer uncommon for the accused man to stand alone, and an increasingly large proportion of wives have refused to play this kind of symbolic role.”
Divergent reactions on social media testified to the polarized climate in which the nomination has played out. Whereas some accused the nominee’s wife of complicity or speculated that she didn’t want to be there, others celebrated her as a “courageous woman” for speaking out.
“This process is incredibly difficult,” Ashley Estes Kavanaugh said. “It’s harder than we imagined, and we imagined it might be hard. But at the end of the day, our faith is strong, and we know that we’re on the right path. And we’re just going to stick to it, so.”
On no other matter — such as Kavanaugh’s judicial record or his legal philosophy — were his wife’s views judged significant. But their joint response to accusations of sexual assault cast the issue as one of personal character rather than “potentially legally actionable offenses or at the very least relevant to one’s professional conduct,” said Williams, whose scholarly work includes a book on single-sex education, “The Separation Solution?: Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality.”
This framing is in line with the nominee’s emphasis on his role coaching girls’ basketball and hiring female law clerks. It also squares with his attempt to point to positive accounts from women, including a letter signed by 65 women who said they knew him in high school, to burnish his reputation. Like these affirmations of the nominee’s good name, the endorsement of his own wife does not dispute the veracity of his accuser’s accounts.
Of course, the judge’s nomination has become intensely personal for his family. Emails to his wife have told her to “burn in hell” and called on her to “put a bullet” in the nominee’s “skull,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, has also received threats.
“I don’t understand — I don’t know what happened to her,” Kavanaugh’s wife said of Ford. “And I don’t even want to go there. I feel badly for her family. I feel badly for her through this process. This process is not right.”
She said it has been “difficult” to discuss these issues with their young daughters. “But they know Brett, and they know the truth,” she said. “And we told them at the very beginning of this process: ‘This will be not fun sometimes. You’re going to hear things that — people feel strongly. You need to know that. Just remember: You know your dad.’ ”
With Fox News being Fox News, the interview was not especially hard-hitting or combative, mostly an opportunity for the judge to profess his disbelief over the accusations and his desire for a “fair process.” Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC observed that “sending Brett Kavanaugh and his wife to Fox News was a desperate move by desperate people.”
“A Fox News interview is not the same as an FBI interview,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
MacCallum did, however, ask whether there should be an FBI probe of the women’s allegations, as the accusers have requested. “You know, sort it all out,” the Fox anchor said. “If there’s nothing to worry about and nothing to hide, why not have that process?”
She said the question was directed to “Ashley, and then I’ll ask you that, Brett.”
The nominee looked at his wife as she gave a shrug and nodded toward him.
“I’ve said all along — and Ashley did, too — I want to be heard,” Kavanaugh said.
She glanced at him as he spoke, and offered quick nods, but said nothing in response to the question.
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